Street food is a quintessential part of the New York cityscape. In the last several years, it has evolved beyond the hot dog cart on the street corner. Today’s street food vendors peddle a stunning array of cuisines that reflect the diversity of the city’s denizens.
The 11th Annual Vendy Awards on Sept. 12, held on Governors Island, was a celebration of humble yet incredibly tasty fare offered by the city’s best street food and market vendors to more than 2,000 foodies.
Proceeds benefited the Street Vendor Project, which advocates for street vendor’s rights.
Vendy judge and Singapore street food expert KF Seetoh believes street food not only has a hand in preserving a community’s culture, but also inspires creativity among entrepreneurs. “It’s soft power with iconic dishes,” Seetoh said, noting that street food is a main attraction for tourists in his hometown.
Street food is still treated with disdain by some, but Seetoh argues that it is some of the best food out there. “This is food that is going back to the basics. People just want real, raw, in-your-face, unforgiving, comforting food,” Seetoh said.
From traditional foods to creative combinations of disparate culinary cultures, below are our top picks from the Vendy food extravaganza.
Snowday prides itself on sourcing all its ingredients from local New York farms and featuring maple syrup in its savory food. Its crowd favorite Maple Grilled Cheese Sandwich ($7) is a medley of sweet, sour, and savory—the sharp cheddar cheese melds seamlessly with the maple between two slices of sourdough bread. It’s a version of grilled cheese that elevates the classic sandwich to a whole other level.
The Fried Smoked Pork Rib ($10) is also a winner. The pork is braised for 12 hours, then deep-fried. The result is smoky, tender meat, mildly sweet and swimming in jus. The ribs are topped with a maple chimichurri, a bright, tangy sauce made with cilantro, red onions, and garlic.
It’s no wonder Snowday’s understated brand of comfort food won a Vendy Cup (decided by panel of judges) and the People’s Choice award (voted by the public) this year. The food truck also has a feel-good mission: It employs formerly incarcerated youth to help them earn another chance in life.
The Shuka Truck
The Israeli dish shakshuka is traditionally eaten for breakfast. But this warm, tomato-y dish ($12 for platter, $9 for sandwich version) is bound to make your stomach happy any time of day. A blend of herbs and harissa, a North African chili paste, gently tickles your tongue, while crunchy onions add a fun texture and feta cheese provides a hint of saltiness. Together with a runny egg, it makes a finger-lickin’-good mixture, perfect for mopping up with a piece of pita.
Shuka also serves a green version ($12 for platter, $10 for sandwich), featuring asparagus and zucchini, and a white version (same prices) with smoked eggplant and white mushrooms.
The latest fusion of Asian and Mexican comes in the form of Coney Shack, which often parks near Coney Island beach. Its Southeast Asian-inspired tacos (prices range from $3.50 to $4), quesadillas, and hot dogs pack tons of flavor in every bite.
The Vietnamese Beef Short Rib Taco is the standout. The juicy bits of beef are marinated in a slightly sweet sauce, while the pickled daikon adds a sour touch. A sweet chili mayo finishes it off with a spicy kick.
The Five-Spice Calamari taco is also worth checking out. The fried coating is reminiscent of Taiwanese popcorn chicken, with accents of anise and cinnamon. The Creole sauce and lemongrass aioli drizzled on top provide more thrills for the palate.
Souvlaki Lady’s grilled meats ($4.50 with pita) reminded me of the best of home cooking. Like my Greek friend’s mother, Souvlaki Lady (whose real name is Elpida Vasiliadis) seasons the meats with a modest hand, so that they don’t drown in the flavors of herbs and spices. The meats are tender and smoky, with a delicious char from the grill. Don’t forget the tzatziki sauce: it provides just the right amount of tartness.
33rd Street & Ditmars Boulevard
Burmese Bites doesn’t have a permanent cart or truck. Instead, it pops up every so often in local food markets (it was recently at the Queens Night Market). Those who are lucky enough to catch it will likely reminisce about its palatas until the next time it appears. “Palatas” are layers of incredibly buttery fried dough, with a delightfully chewy, springy texture. The Chicken Curry Palata ($5) comes with a curry stew on top, made of peas, potatoes, and spiced chicken, while the Keema Palata ($5) is stuffed with minced chicken, eggs, and onions. Both are fantastic and make you wish for more.
Biryani, an Indian rice dish, can be found in many street carts and restaurants around the city, but Biryani House executes it particularly well. The rice is moist—not too soggy or dry. The chicken biryani ($6) includes tender, dark chicken meat. All the lovely spices that the rice is cooked in come together harmoniously, making for a platter of flavorful goodness that drew long lines at the Vendys.
140 Broadway (between Liberty and Cedar Street)
These aren’t your childhood lemonades—Renegade infuses its drink concoctions with a variety of fruits and herbs (depending on size, $3 to $10). All of the flavors I tried knocked it out of the ballpark. The Strawberry Basil is like a fruit popsicle in liquid form, while the Thai Chili Tart Cherry surprises with a spiciness that slowly spreads to the back of your mouth. The drinks maintain a fine balance between sweet and tart. During the summer season, Renegade sells at different outdoor food events around the city. Otherwise, its lemonade can be found at Ice & Vice, a dessert shop it partners with.
Ice & Vice
221 East Broadway
Best Juice Uptown
Hector Palaguachi, originally from Ecuador, has been serving up delicious drinks from a small juice cart in Washington Heights for six years. His “morir soñando” (“die dreaming” in Spanish) is unforgettable. The Dominican drink, which Palaguachi learned to make from working at a Dominican restaurant, is made from squeezed orange juice, condensed milk, and cane sugar ($3, $4, $5 for small, medium, large). Sipping it will remind you of eating an Orange Creamsicle—in the best way possible.
On Broadway (between 184th to 207th streets)
Doughnuttery has a neat little machine that squeezes out bite-sized donut-shaped dough, which goes onto a mini-conveyor belt that then drops them into hot oil. Just moments later, voilà—fresh doughnuts! The soft and pillowy doughnuts are the perfect vehicle for Doughnuttery’s signature flavored sugars that are sprinkled on top ($6 for six). Paris Time is a fragrant mix of lavender, pistachio, and vanilla, while Coco Loco is an addictive blend of chocolate cereal and cocoa powder. The Cinnamon Sugar is a classic must-try.
Inside Chelsea Market
425 W. 15th St.
2015 Winners of the Vendy Awards:
Vendy Cup: Snowday Food Truck
People’s Choice: Snowday Food Truck
Rookie of the Year: Coney Shack
Best Market Vendor: Home Frite
Best Dessert: Doughnuttery
Best Street Drink: Renegade Lemonade